This article appears in the July 6, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Reprinted from The Beckham Experiment, by Grant Wahl. Copyright © 2009 by Grant Wahl. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.
After his five-month loan to Italian superclub AC Milan, David Beckham is expected back with the Los Angeles Galaxy and scheduled to play on July 16 against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium. But when he takes the field the mood will be far less giddy than the one that heralded his arrival in the U.S. in 2007. In Beckham's two years with the Galaxy he has successfully sold jerseys and served as celebrity eye candy, but the soccer story has been an epic disaster, from his injury-plagued season in '07 through a loss-filled campaign in '08.
Beckham's side made sure he became team captain, and later they engaged in a behind-the-scenes takeover of Galaxy management. Yet L.A. failed to reach the MLS playoffs both years. By the end of the '08 season Beckham was barely speaking to his teammate Landon Donovan, MLS's leading scorer, who questioned the Englishman's commitment to the team.
The Beckham Experiment is a story of worlds colliding, bringing together the planet's most famous athlete with teammates who earned as little as $12,900 a year. But that inequity was only the start of a downward spiral that, on the eve of Beckham's return, has turned into a soccer fiasco.
The summit meeting took place at Mastro's, a high-class steak house in Beverly Hills. On July 25, 2007 -- three days after their welcome-to-Hollywood party, hosted by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith -- David and Victoria Beckham joined Landon Donovan and his wife, Bianca Kajlich, for a get-to-know-you meal. At the Home Depot Center, 10-foot-high profiles of Beckham and Donovan stared at each other from huge banners. Now, for the first time, the team's two biggest stars were facing each other across the dinner table.
Nearly anywhere else in the world, Donovan's achievements would have made him a household name, a fixture on the covers of sports magazines and (considering that his wife starred in the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement) celebrity rags. As a 20-year-old at the 2002 World Cup he had scored the goal that sealed the most important victory in U.S. men's soccer history, a 2-0 second-round defeat of archrival Mexico. Now 25, Donovan had won three MLS titles and been voted the national team's player of the year a record three times. Yet it was his fate -- equal parts fortune and misfortune -- to have been born in the U.S. Which is to say that the three dozen paparazzi outside Mastro's were not there for him.
Beckham was supplanting Donovan as the main attraction in U.S. soccer, and if MLS's Beckham Experiment was to work, Donovan needed to be happy. Beckham knew it. So did Frank Yallop, the team's mild-mannered coach, who had left nothing to chance. Yallop put Beckham's locker next to Donovan's, the better to encourage their interaction, and the coach had arranged this dinner, bringing along his own wife, Karen, in the hope that there would be less pressure on the two couples if it were a table for six.
As the wives chatted among themselves and Yallop got the conversation going among the men by asking Beckham about his playing days in Europe, Donovan recalled two exchanges that had taken place just the week before. On successive days he had met with Yallop and Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas, and each had told him that "people above me" -- meaning Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG, which owned the Galaxy -- thought Beckham should be the team captain. Both men tried to sugarcoat the blow. "I don't really look at who has the armband," Yallop told Donovan. "You're a leader to me, a great player. It would just be great if you could have a relationship with David and you pass it on to him." Lalas, for his part, issued Donovan a challenge: "Let him be the captain; you be the star."
What they didn't tell Donovan was that the request that he give up his captaincy had originated not with Leiweke but with Beckham's camp. The topic had come up when Lalas and Yallop visited Beckham and Terry Byrne, Beckham's best friend and personal manager, in Madrid the previous spring. After a lunch at Beckham's house, the host stayed inside as Byrne walked Lalas and Yallop onto the porch. "What are you doing about the captaincy?" asked Byrne, who felt that Beckham should wear the armband as soon as he joined the team. Neither Lalas nor Yallop felt comfortable deciding right then, so the men agreed to table the idea. But in subsequent months, Lalas says, Byrne made his best friend's wishes explicit more than once to Lalas and Leiweke. (Beckham declined to comment on this or any other issue in this story. Sources close to Beckham confirmed that Byrne had brought up the captaincy, but only in Madrid, and denied that the request had come from Beckham himself.)
Donovan's first thought about his bosses' request? That's pretty s-----. He didn't have a problem with someone else being captain, least of all a player with Beckham's credentials, but he did have an acute sense of being disrespected. So he decided not to act immediately. Lalas and Yallop might sweat, but before he'd consider surrendering the armband Donovan wanted to get to know Beckham. That night at Mastro's, over thick steaks and fine red wine, was his first chance.
Donovan gave up the captaincy three weeks later. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had only two options. He could dig in his heels, force Yallop to make the change himself and create tension with Beckham in the locker room. Or he could accept that he was boxed into a corner, give up the armband and hear public praise from Beckham and Yallop for his selfless act for the good of the team. Of course, nobody -- including Donovan -- would tell the media the real story behind the change.
Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton's steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.
"O.K.," the waiter said. "I need to see some I.D.'s."
"I don't have my I.D. with me," Beckham said.
"No I.D., no wine!" the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham's wineglass.
Beckham thought it was a put-on. "Is this guy taking the piss?" he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy's Portuguese defender Abel Xavier couldn't produce an I.D., his wineglass disappeared too. "What is this?" the 34-year-old Xavier thundered. "I have a kid who can drink." The other players laughed hysterically, partly because the waiter hadn't recognized the world's most famous athlete and partly because Beckham and Xavier were so used to being mobbed in Europe that they didn't bother carrying identification. Welcome to soccer in the U.S., guys.
Beckham's bodyguard pulled the waiter aside to explain. Soon the maître d' came over. "I don't care who they are!" the players heard the waiter say to his boss. Finally the maître d' prevailed, and Beckham and Xavier got their wineglasses in time to join their teammates in a toast.
The Morton's dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. "You can break his balls," said defender Chris Albright, "and he'll break your balls right back." Kyle Martino, a midfielder, was stunned that Beckham could be such a regular guy.
And then the check came.
Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 -- before taxes -- and living in one of the U.S.'s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking, Is Beckham going to pick up the check? But nobody said anything. Beckham, meanwhile, had never been in this situation before. The players on his other teams had all been millionaires, and Real Madrid paid for all team meals anyway. The Galaxy provided only a $45 per diem on the road. What would Beckham do? What should he do?
Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates' dinners in the past, and he'd made his position clear even before Beckham's arrival. "He'd better be picking up meals too," Donovan had told teammates, "or else I'll call him out on it." But defender Chris Klein, one of Donovan's best friends on the team, had a different viewpoint.
"If you're out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine," Klein said. "But if you start to feel like you're being used, these aren't your friends anymore. These are leeches. You can look at it two ways: Here's this guy that's making a lot of money, and maybe he should pick up the tab. But the other side of it is, maybe he's trying so hard to be one of the guys, if he's paying for everything then he's not one of the guys anymore."
Beckham didn't pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. "None of us care," said Kelly Gray, one of Beckham's frequent dining companions. "It's just nice to go out to dinner."
Donovan didn't call Beckham out at Morton's after all, but he could never get over Beckham's alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.
Injuries limited Beckham to seven games in 2007 as L.A. missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. But when Yallop resigned after the season, it wasn't Lalas who conducted the search for a new coach.
With his manic energy and masterly talents for theater, promotion and spin, Lalas was the sports equivalent of magician Doug Henning. But Lalas knew the trick facing him at the Galaxy's standing-room-only news conference on Nov. 9, 2007, would be as hard to pull off as any of Henning's signature stunts. Nearly a hundred members of the international media had assembled at the Home Depot Center in front of a dais that included Lalas, Leiweke and Ruud Gullit, the Dutch former World Player of the Year who had just signed a three-year, $6 million contract to become the highest-paid coach in MLS history.
How do you feign rousing support for a coach whom everyone thinks you handpicked, when in fact you had nothing to do with it? How do you sing the praises of a great soccer mind when in fact you counseled your boss against hiring him? As he flashed his most convincing fake smile, Lalas couldn't stop thinking of the horrible scene earlier that day in the Galaxy locker room. Lalas brought Gullit in front of all the players, held out his right arm and announced, "Guys, this is your new coach, Ruud Gullit." Gullit said a few words, and then, out of nowhere, another man stepped forward and took over the proceedings, speaking to the team as if he were in charge.
Most of the players were confused. Who was this British guy who looked like the comedian Ricky Gervais? When Donovan asked whether the players would need to change their Thanksgiving plans, it was this guy, not Lalas or Gullit, who answered him. "That was weird for me," said Klein. "Alexi Lalas is the general manager of this team, and then here's this other guy presenting our new coach. I was like, What is going on here?"
The mysterious figure was Byrne, who was not only Beckham's best friend and personal manager but also a business associate of Beckham's manager, 19 Entertainment chief Simon Fuller, the Brit who created American Idol. Even though Beckham was in the room, he remained oddly silent. Nobody would ever bother explaining to the players (or to the public) what had happened: that Leiweke had hired Byrne as a paid consultant to the Galaxy and Byrne had conducted the coaching search, recommended Gullit and made the first phone calls in the negotiating process. Lalas left the locker room shaking his head. It was inappropriate for Byrne to be there, he felt, and even more so to have spoken. "I walked out," Lalas said, "feeling the team I had been in charge of was no longer mine."
At the news conference introducing Gullit, the 19 Entertainment logo was plastered all over the backdrop. Beckham's handlers had essentially taken over the Galaxy, snatched away Lalas's power and installed their man as coach. At least Leiweke was honest about it. "When Wayne Gretzky was with the Kings, Wayne had a lot of input on the Kings' direction player-personnel-wise," he said. "It's just a fact. You had a dominant guy that was the franchise. When Magic Johnson was with the Lakers, Magic had a lot of input about the direction they were headed. So does Kobe [Bryant] today. When David or his people spoke, we obviously listened."
There was a major difference, however. Gretzky, Magic or Kobe never had his best friend put in a paid management position that was never spelled out to his teammates.
The 2008 Galaxy was a nightmare defensively, but early on L.A. also produced some of the most entertaining attacking soccer that MLS had ever seen. Donovan scored eight goals in the season's first five games, three of them coming from Beckham's passes, and for a brief period the Galaxy's two biggest stars found common ground.
After months of reflection Donovan felt that he had worried too much about Beckham's arrival, wasted too much time and energy wondering whether they and their wives would have a close relationship. It was like the bad parts of high school, and it didn't have to be that way. In fact life was a lot easier now that Donovan realized where he and Beckham did connect: on the field, where their shared passion, competitiveness and talent had a sort of elemental purity that Donovan craved. "We're both soccer players," Donovan said, "and we want to win. It's not much more complicated than that. I don't have to go hang out with David on weekends. So by having that mentality we've gotten along really well this year off the field as well. I think there's more mutual respect than there was last year. Not that it was bad, but there was never any real connection."
Of course, forging that soccer bond had been impossible in 2007 because Beckham had rarely played. Donovan now understood how skilled Beckham really was; he marveled at Beckham's passing precision and efficiency, the way he hit the ball cleanly every time. Donovan had reached the point, unheard of in MLS, of believing a teammate's passes would go exactly where they were supposed to -- and 95% of the time they did. With the combination of Beckham's technical ability and his full-field vision, Donovan was in soccer nirvana. "It's just fun," he said. "When he gets the ball, my eyes light up because I know every time there's the potential that we're going to score a goal."
From the start Donovan's primary concern with Beckham had been, What is he really here for? The money? A vacation? Would he care about beating Real Salt Lake when he'd played for Real Madrid? So far in 2008, at least, Donovan was impressed. The Galaxy's 2-2-1 start had been frustrating at times, but Beckham showed real emotion when one of his crosses found Donovan for yet another goal. Producing on the field, Donovan felt, had brought Beckham and his Galaxy teammates closer together. "It's kind of like it's validated why he's here," Donovan said.
The optimism didn't last. After a 3-0 victory in San Jose on June 14, L.A. would go three months without a win, dropping to the bottom of the MLS standings. The hiring of Gullit as coach turned out to be disastrous. Several players said the Galaxy hadn't practiced set pieces during the entire two-month-long preseason, an unfathomable concept for a team that had the world's premier dead-ball specialist (Beckham). In training sessions Gullit almost never spent time on individual technical skills, instead conducting game after game of 11-on-11. Even worse, Donovan observed, on many days Gullit rolled into the Home Depot Center at 9 a.m. and left by 12:30 p.m. (Practice was from 10 to noon.) "A coach should be the first one there and the last one to leave, and it just wasn't the case," Donovan said.
By July 2008, moreover, the L.A. players had seen enough to realize that Beckham might be a good teammate, but he wasn't much of a captain. It was one thing to take part in team events, the Galaxy players felt, but it was another thing to lead, to rally the players during tough times and defend the greater good of the team with the coach and the front office. Donovan noticed several things. For one, when Gullit gave the players an optional practice day, Beckham rarely showed up. ("As the captain you should at least come in and show your face," Donovan said.) What's more, Donovan thought Beckham should address the team about Byrne's role and clear up any confusion. "But he hasn't had anything to say to anybody," Donovan said, shaking his head.
Most of all, Donovan was upset that Beckham had not supported him in front of the team when Gullit had confronted him at halftime of the May 25 game against Kansas City. Donovan had not played deep enough in midfield in the first half, according to Gullit, who angrily challenged him in the locker room. "If I'm the captain and he goes after our best player that way, I would have said, 'Hold on a second, that's not right, this guy is doing everything he can,' " Donovan said. But Beckham had sat stone silent.
The questions about Beckham's leadership didn't come just from Donovan, but also from other players who liked Beckham personally and had shared meals with him on road trips. Veteran defender Greg Vanney noticed that Beckham didn't rally the players during rough stretches and never called team meetings during losing streaks. Vanney also wondered whether Beckham could empathize with a teammate making a five-figure salary and being whipsawed in and out of the lineup by Gullit with no explanation.
"I think he's a great guy, a great father, and a very good soccer player who's special in the qualities he brings to the field," Vanney said, "but he doesn't live in the same world that we live in. That's not his fault, but it's very difficult for him to relate to and understand the majority of the players on the team, how we're treated by the coach. Maybe it's not in his best personal interest to take a stance, but it's a stance he should take because he's the leader of our group." Beckham was indeed more vocal in representing the players at private meetings with Gullit, sources close to Beckham argued, but Vanney thought his teammates needed to be made aware of that, since he saw no evidence of the coach's changed behavior.
The moment that sealed Beckham's "good teammate, bad captain" reputation might have come last October, when Klein started questioning whether Beckham was well-suited for the armband. If you had polled teams on the best-liked player in MLS, Klein probably would have won the vote. "I really like David as a person, and I respect him as a man," Klein said, "but it's a different type of leadership that has to go on with all this. Sometimes it's the rah-rah American sports leader that needs to be like, 'All right, guys, come on!' and have a team meeting. It's difficult for a foreign player to do that because [he doesn't] know what the college kid had to go through, [he doesn't] know what it's like to make $12,000 a year." The more Beckham disengaged from the Galaxy players, the more some of them wondered if his five-year captaincy with England had been as ceremonial as the role of the British royal family.
Beckham, meanwhile, had grown increasingly frustrated over not seeing enough of the ball on the right side, so much so that he had been drifting all over the field. "There are times when I scratch my head, saying we're paying millions of dollars for a centerback," Lalas said. Beckham wasn't hiding -- he wanted to do something -- but the net effect was negative. Donovan lost count of how many times Beckham commandeered the ball deep in the Galaxy's own end, gave his teammates time to run downfield and sent a long pass a yard or two short, allowing the opponent to counterattack against a defense that now had five players out of position.
By mid-July, Donovan felt he needed to say something to Beckham about it, but it was a sign of their increasingly distant relationship that he did so by text message. I know you're frustrated and I know you're trying, Donovan wrote, but we need you farther up the field where you're more dangerous. You're the best player out there and you need the ball, but it doesn't help us achieve anything if you're doing other people's jobs.
Beckham's reply was short: We just need guys to be better on the field and do a better job. Donovan tried to follow up with Beckham in the locker room the next day -- "You understand what I'm saying?" he asked -- but Beckham clearly didn't want to talk about it.
"It's difficult to know how to approach him with things, to be critical of him," Donovan said, "because he doesn't take it well."
In August 2008 Leiweke napalmed the Galaxy's dysfunctional management structure, pushing out Lalas, Gullit and Byrne, thereby damaging his relationship with Team Beckham. Not once did Beckham address the players as L.A.'s free fall continued, and in October he used a yellow-card suspension as a reason not to attend L.A.'s most important game of the season, a loss in Houston that eliminated the team from playoff contention. Four days later news broke of Beckham's clandestine push to be loaned to AC Milan. Donovan was furious.
Over a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad at Petros, a stylish Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Donovan took a sip of Pinot Grigio and exhaled deeply. It was 24 hours after he'd learned of Beckham's desire to move to Milan, and instead of enjoying a Thursday off from practice, he was miserable. The Galaxy's awful season hadn't ended yet, but all the talk was about Beckham's possible departure. Donovan himself was convinced that Captain Galaxy had vanished in spirit weeks earlier. "My sense is that David's clearly frustrated, that he's unhappy and, honestly, that he thinks it's a joke," said Donovan, who was about to clinch the MLS goal-scoring title. "I also kind of feel [he has taken the team] for granted. I don't see dedication or commitment to this team, and that's troubling."
The longer Donovan had been around Beckham, the more he'd asked himself, Who is this guy? Why is he so secretive? Donovan had tried to have a conversation with Beckham the day before, but he'd gotten nowhere. "So you're going to Milan?" Donovan had asked.
"We'll see," Beckham replied. "I've got to stay fit somehow during the off-season."
"It's a nice city, right?"
"Some people say it is, but I don't know."
And that was it. Their lockers were side-by-side, but they might as well have been a million miles apart.
No, Donovan decided, Beckham communicated far more clearly with his actions than with his words. Donovan still couldn't fathom why Beckham had stayed in England for nearly three days after a national-team game the previous week, had refrained from traveling to Houston to support his teammates in the most important game of the year. It didn't matter that he was suspended, Donovan thought, didn't matter that he'd been given permission by the Galaxy to stay away. He was the captain of the team.
"All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us," Donovan said. "As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways -- on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone's paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you're suspended or not. Show up and train hard. Show up and play hard. Maybe he's not a leader, maybe he's not a captain. Fair enough. But at a minimum you should bust your ass every day. That hasn't happened. And I don't think that's too much for us to expect. Especially when he's brought all this on us."
Donovan had wanted the Beckham Experiment to work, and there was no reason in his mind that it still couldn't be successful in 2009. But not if Beckham continued acting the way he had during the last half of 2008. "When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing," Donovan said. "He cared. He wanted to do well. He wanted the team and the league to do well. Somewhere along the way -- and in my mind it coincides with Ruud being let go -- he just flipped a switch and said, 'Uh-uh, I'm not doing it anymore.' "
By now, in fact, Donovan no longer agreed with the "good teammate, bad captain" verdict that so many other Galaxy players had reached on Beckham. Donovan was convinced that Beckham wasn't even a good teammate anymore: "He's not. He's not shown that. I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good teammate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with [Beckham] I'd say no, he wasn't committed."
The most fascinating aspect of Donovan's barrage was the even manner in which he delivered it. He sounded like a scientist revealing the findings of an experiment. The way Donovan saw it, he was just sharing his conclusions about a coworker, one who happened to be David Beckham.
Donovan didn't know what would come next, but he did know that things would have to change if he and Beckham were teammates in 2009. "Let's say he does stay here three more years," Donovan said. "I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f------ miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."
What could he do? "That's my issue too," he said. "I've got to confront it somehow. If that's the way he's going to be, fine, then hold him accountable. Bench him. Just say, 'We're not going to play you, we don't think you're committed.' "
As disgusted as he sounded, though, Donovan still thought his relationship with Beckham could be saved -- if Beckham returned to being the kind of teammate who at least wanted to come support the Galaxy the day after an England game. Then again, it all might have been moot, given the Milan news. Donovan knew how the soccer world worked, knew how Beckham and 19 Entertainment operated too. "It could be that it's just a loan now," Donovan said, "but he could play a few games and go, 'S---, I want to stay here.'"
Donovan was right. Beckham produced two goals and two assists in his first five games for Milan and announced that he wanted to stay in Italy instead of returning to the Galaxy. Thus began a monthlong global saga of negotiations involving Milan, L.A. and MLS. The result: Beckham would finish the Serie A season and rejoin the Galaxy in July, midway through the MLS season.
By the time Beckham returned, Donovan planned on finally confronting the Englishman over his commitment to the Galaxy. Now, however, the tables had turned. Donovan was wearing the captain's armband again.
Grant Wahl's book, The Beckham Experiment, comes out on July 14. You can pre-order ithere.